I sat outdoors at a cafe on the Mediterranean Sea in al-Arish, a dusty seaside town in Egypt’s northern Sinai. I drank a tea and smoked a water pipe; it gave me something to do while I waited for Ismail — that’s not his real name — an Egyptian Bedouin tunnel smuggler who was going to deliver a package for me into Gaza.
It’s been nearly ten years since I’ve been to Palestine. I vividly remember the summer of 2000 when I left Palestine with my family. We passed through the Rafah crossing into Egypt. A long Mercedes taxi — they’re ubiquitous in Egypt and Palestine — carried us from Egyptian Rafah to al-Arish and finally to Cairo. From there, we boarded a flight to New York. Most of our extended family remained — they have nothing approaching our freedom of movement because we hold the American passport.
Much has changed since I’d been there last. The second Palestinian intifada flared, raged and then died. Hamas won a majority of seats in the 2006 parliamentary elections and was nearly overthrown by Fatah a year later. When the coup didn’t go as planned the people of Gaza were shut in.
Israel imposed its siege on Gaza in June 2007, after the Fatah coup attempt. The tunnel trade between Egypt and Gaza became the chief mode of transferring commodities into the tiny coastal territory. Flour, gasoline, soda, toys, electronics and yes, small arms are moved into Gaza through hundreds of subterranean tunnels.
I went back to Egypt several weeks ago. A friend in Cairo mentioned that he had a laptop and some CDs that were intended for a friend of his in Palestinian Rafah. He knew that I planned to go to al-Arish, and if I could make it past the checkpoints, to Egyptian Rafah, and asked if I could arrange to have the items smuggled to Gaza. I agreed; the siege is an expression of moral bankruptcy and responsible human beings are compelled to undermine the regime in every way. Furthermore, the Palestinians of Gaza have very few options when it comes to receiving basic goods.
A few days later, I caught a bus to al-Arish. I arrived at about 10pm and checked into my hotel. My friend in Cairo had given me Ismail’s number after speaking to him about me and when I’d be going. So, the next morning I called Ismail and we agreed to meet at a cafe in the afternoon.
Some time later, I made my way to the beach and sat at the seaside cafe when a man approached; it was Ismail. He smiled broadly as we shook hands and introduced ourselves. The deep-brown skin in the corner of his eyes crinkled. His dark hair was short and neat and combed to the side. He reminded me of my father. I ordered a second tea as he sat down on the chair beside me so that we both had a view of the sea’s expanse.
We started talking:
“You know I’m from Gaza,” I said, “Tal al-Sultan in Rafah.”
“Oh, I’ve been there. I have family in Jabaliya.”
We chatted for some minutes about the weather and al-Arish and families we knew in common. He’d been working in the tunnel trade since the siege began. It was a natural way to earn income for him — as a Bedouin, he moved more freely than others in the Sinai, and his relatives in Gaza provided a secure trust network.
Indeed, many Palestinians from Gaza have relatives in Egypt, and vice versa. My own paternal grandmother is a Sinai Bedouin. The extensive kinship networks and intermarriage thrived until Israel occupied the territory in 1967, when it became harder for people to cross the new borders.
Ismail explained how he would deliver the package, stating that “I’ll take it back to [Egyptian] Rafah in my car and hand it over to someone who will give it to a Palestinian from the tunnel. ‘B’ [the person for whom the package is intended] will call the guy and meet up with him. He’ll pay him on that end.”
My package would cost 50 cents to $1 a kilo, but bigger loads would have a cheaper rate. It would take a day or two to deliver at a total cost of roughly $10 — not too expensive by American standards but a considerable sum in Gaza.
Ismail explained that although the tunnels were owned by Palestinians and they did all of the work to construct them — typically at night — the traffic was usually only one way: Egyptian goods into Gaza.
He was deliberately vague about whether the Egyptian army knew the locations of the tunnels and received bribes to allow them to operate. “You have to be careful,” Ismail said, referring to offering bribes to the authorities, “sometimes you can do that but sometimes no. It depends but there isn’t any way to know.”
When I asked about the new wall being constructed underground between Egypt and Gaza with the assistance of the US Army Corps of Engineers, he was dismissive. Ismail explained that it had yet to affect trade and that “some guys have already cut through it.” He noted however that “it hasn’t reached the part of the border where most of the tunnels are. And people are coming up with ways to get around it.”
As our meeting drew to a close Ismail offered me a ride back to town all the while apologizing for not offering me a ride to Rafah. Security on the main road was tough he explained and he couldn’t afford to be subjected to too much scrutiny with a foreigner in the car. He also warned me, saying, “If you make it to Rafah, don’t tell anyone that you’re a journalist — don’t talk to anyone. It’s all mukhabarat [intelligence]. Just say you’re going home.”
I did make it to Rafah later that day. What I saw wasn’t so much a town as a military encampment. Heavy equipment, likely tied to the subterranean wall, was everywhere. Dusty day laborers swarmed the tea shops. Armored personnel carriers patrolled the streets while checkpoints closed off access towards Palestine and the Mediterranean.
It wasn’t long before some men approached me and started asking questions in a non-official, but probing and intrusive way. “Who are you? Where are you from? How did you get here?” Motioning to the military, they asked, “Did they clear you?” I answered the way Ismail told me and decided to leave pretty soon after that; my paranoia got the better of me.
My trip back to al-Arish was uneventful and it gave me an opportunity to reflect about the events of the day and how my home has become a concentration camp. The pressures on the Palestinians in Gaza are immense, but they have not succumbed to the pressure.
By the time I reached Cairo the next day, my friend had confirmed that the laptop was received by his friend in Gaza. Even with billions of dollars expended and complete military siege, Palestinians choose not to die and this story is evidence of that.
Born in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, Ahmed Moor graduated from university in Philadelphia, after which he spent three years working in finance in New York. He is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon.